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  • Writer's pictureAnzetse Were

How women stabilise and grow economies in Africa

This article first appeared on the OECD Development Matters Blog on October 5, 2022.

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Women’s contributions to economic output and baseline economic welfare tend to be underestimated due the double injustice of unpaid care work and unpaid work. This double injustice denies women of the compensation, reward, recognition and upward income mobility that come with performing economic tasks – even when the output of those tasks is counted in official calculations. Most often, unpaid care work is neither formally counted as economic output, nor is it compensated. Instead, it is seen as women’s responsibility, due to their gender. This ultimately means that the immense amount of time, effort and skill women (and girls) put into the economy is invisible.


Women’s unpaid care work subsidises the cost of care that sustains families, supports economies and often fills in for the lack of social services. Globally, women and girls provide up to 90% of home care due to illness. It is estimated that if women’s unpaid care work were assigned a monetary value it would constitute between 10% and 39% of GDP and can contribute more to the economy than the manufacturing, commerce or transportation sectors.


Yet the reality and social expectations related to unpaid care work have not reduced in Africa, even as more women enter the workforce and run their own businesses. Africa has the highest percentage of women entrepreneurs in the world according to the African Development Bank; 25.9% of women are in the process of starting or managing a business in sub-Saharan Africa. Women are also beginning to play central leadership roles in the economy. In 2018, sub-Saharan African women held 24.3% of African company board seats (and represented 24.5% of board chairs), compared with 27% on corporate boards worldwide. In terms of labour force, women’s participation in industry and services has increased since 2010, and in agriculture women constitute 40% of crop production labour.


Unpaid care work denies women economic rewards for their time, effort and skills, while compromising their career and business trajectories. In Africa, women spend 3.4 more time in unpaid care work than men and women work more hours than men when unpaid care work and paid work are added together. Further, due to high fertility rates combined with women’s high labour force participation rates, 85% of women in Africa are employed and have care responsibilities.


The layered effects of unpaid care work on women

It is important to keep working on shifting gender norms so that men and women share the domestic and care workload more equitably. However, this will likely take time and require inter-generational attitude changes. The good news is that other avenues with more immediate economic benefits exist. Reducing women’s household work burden could increase agricultural labour productivity by 15% and capital productivity by as much as 44% in some countries. Formally recognising and investing in the ‘unpaid care economy’ could create 269 million additional jobs in the care economy.


African governments could also make investments, as part of Covid-19 recovery efforts, aimed at creating economic opportunities for the 10 to 12 million young Africans that enter the workforce each year, while improving care for the growing number of elderly with specialised care needs. For instance, this could be achieved through investments in:


  • Access to basic services, with a focus on electrification and access to water, which can reduce the time and energy women spend looking for water and cooking fuel.

  • Creation and implementation of care policies to improve access to maternity protection and leave schemes, paid leave for fathers and free and compulsory pre-primary education.

  • Development of long-term care services like coverage for persons with severe disabilities, early childhood care and education services, universal access to quality and affordable childcare services, and greater provision of services for the elderly and those with specialised long-term health needs.


Investing in the care economy implies global total public and private expenditure on care services of around USD 18.4 trillion. Although most African economies face limited resources and tight fiscal conditions, deliberate action can be taken to address unpaid care. Doing so will yield the dividends of addressing gender inequality while stimulating job creation, improving economic productivity and creating opportunities for income growth.

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